Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Why we seriously need a new funny prize

This post was originally published on Picture Book Den, a blog about picture books by picture book authors and illustrators.

The demise of the Roald Dahl Prize is nothing to laugh about 

Like many involved with children’s literature and children’s literacy, I was dismayed to learn that the Roald Dahl Funny Prize was coming to an end.

The prize was launched in 2008 by the Roald Dahl estate, Booktrust and author Michael Rosen, as part of Rosen’s work as children’s laureate. The Dahl estate have said that they were withdrawing their support for the prize because it did not fit in with the estate’s plans for next year’s Roald Dahl centenary.

I was dismayed for a couple of reasons. The first reason is extremely selfish. I was an avid Roald Dahl fan as a child, Dahl has been a big influence on my writing and the books that I’m proudest of are the ones that - like most of Dahl’s – make children laugh. Although I don’t write books to win awards, if I could choose one adult-judged award that I’d liked to have won it would be the Dahl Funny Prize. When I met the 2011 Funny Prize winning author Peter Bently at an awards lunch a few years ago I contemplated holding my butter knife to his throat and forcing him to take me to his house so that I could steal his trophy confessed how much I coveted the prize. Now I’ve had to give up any hope of that dream coming true. *sobs uncontrollably into keyboard*

The second reason is less selfish. Scholastic’s Kids and Family Reading report published last month demonstrated that, “above all, children want books that make them laugh.” When children were asked what they looked for when choosing a book to read for fun, humour was the most commonly cited factor by a considerable margin.

"Above all, children want books that make them laugh"
(Graph from the UK Kids and Family Reading report 2015)

Research shows that children that read for pleasure do better in maths, vocabulary and spelling than those who rarely read and they gain advantages that last their whole lives. The Kids and Family Reading report shows that if we want kids to read for pleasure, then we need to recognise and highlight the huge value of funny books. The Roald Dahl Funny Prize was the only high-profile book award that did this.

Funny books play a vital role in establishing reading habits at an early age and are particularly good at engaging reluctant readers. My son and daughter both adored Andy Stanton’s Mr Gum series and I’m always recommending them to parents who are struggling to engage their children with books. I don’t think many people appreciate how difficult it is to write something as absurdly funny as Mr Gum unless they’ve actually attempted it. As John Cleese once said, “it’s much easier to be clever than it is to be funny”.

Fortunately, I’m not the only person to feel this way. Once news of the Dahl prize’s demise got around, many people started calling for a replacement funny prize. Author Andy Seed suggested on Facebook that any new award should include separate categories for picture books, fiction, non-fiction and poetry. I love the idea of a funny book awards with multiple categories like the Oscars. You could have great fun with the awards ceremony by poking fun at some of the conventions of more serious awards. Instead of sitting there with a fixed grin, clapping politely when the winner is announced, runners-up could be encouraged to shriek “NOOOOOO!”, tear at their hair, wail inconsolably or shout insults at the winner. I’m sure that the kids attending would find it far more entertaining than a regular awards ceremony where the nominees are expected to behave themselves and I suspect that the authors and illustrators might enjoy it more too.

It would be hilarious to have an award ceremony where the runners-up were encouraged to voice their disappointment.

The recently created This Book is Funny website does a great job of waving the banner for funny books. When the Roald Dahl news broke last week, the team behind the site announced that they were already gearing up to step into the breach which is heartening news.

If there is a new funny books award, I hope that it will have a children’s vote to pick the winners rather than a panel of adult judges. Humour is largely subjective and there are no better judges of what children find funny than children themselves – as this second graph from the Kids and Family Reading report illustrates.

The best judges of what kids find appealing are kids themselves.
(Graph from the UK Kids and Family Reading report 2015)

We seriously need a funny prize, so – whoever organises it and whatever it's called – I have all my appendages crossed that we'll have a new one soon!

UPDATE: Great news! The week after this post oringally went online on the Picture Book Den blog, Scholastic UK announced a new funny book prize – The Laugh Out Loud Book Awards (AKA The Lollies)! 

The prize will be awarded in three categories:
  • Best Laugh Out Loud Picture Book
  • Best Laugh Out Loud Book for 6-8s
  • Best Laugh Out Loud Book for 9-13s
A panel headed by Michael Rosen will select four books to make up the shortlist in each category but the winners will be decided entirely by children’s votes. You can find out more on this page of the Scholastic website.

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